All because of a collapse by Adam Scott that no one imagined.
Four shots ahead with four holes to play - after eight straight holes with nothing worse than par - Scott bogeyed them all and had to fight back tears on the 18th green Sunday as the magnitude of his meltdown began to sink in.
Els, who started the final round six shots behind, finished off a flawless back nine with a 15-foot birdie putt for a 2-under 68 that looked as if it would do little more than lock up another runner-up finish at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Instead, he wound up with his second British Open - the other one was 10 years ago at Muirfield - and fourth major championship at a stage in his career when it seemed as though his best golf was behind him.
"Amazing," Els said. "I'm still numb. It still hasn't set in. It will probably take quite a few days because I haven't been in this position for 10 years, obviously. So it's just crazy, crazy, crazy getting here."
The celebration was muted, unlike his other three majors.
"First of all, I feel for Adam Scott. He's a great friend of mine," Els said. "Obviously, we both wanted to win very badly. But you know, that's the nature of the beast. That's why we're out here. You win, you lose. It was my time for some reason."
The wind finally arrived off the Irish Sea and ushered in pure chaos - a mental blunder by Tiger Woods that led to triple bogey on the sixth hole, a lost ball by Brandt Snedeker that took him out of contention and a topped shot that made former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell look like an amateur.
Nothing was more stunning that what happened to Scott.
He failed to get up-and-down from a bunker on the 15th. With a wedge in his hand in the 16th fairway, he went 30 feet long and missed a 3-foot par putt. From the fairway on the 17th, he pulled his approach into thick grass left of the green. And on the final hole, he hit 3-wood to near the face of a pot bunker.
Scott still had a chance to force extra holes with a strong shot into 7 feet on the 18th for par. The putt stayed left the entire way. His chin buckled, and it looked as if he might start crying on the green. He composed himself and mouthed one word: "Wow."
"I had it in my hands with four to go," Scott said. "I managed to hit a poor shot on each of the closing four holes. Look, I played so beautifully for most of the week. I shouldn't let this bring me down."
Even so, it added another chapter to Australian heartbreak, most of that belonging to his idol, Greg Norman.
Scott was the fourth Australian since the 2007 Masters to lead going into the final round of a major, yet the proud land Down Under remains without a major since Geoff Ogilvy won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006.
"Greg was my hero when I was a kid, and I thought he was a great role model, how he handled himself in victory and defeat," Scott said. "He set a good example for us. It's tough. I can't justify anything that I've done out there. I didn't finish the tournament well today.
"But next time - I'm sure there will be a next time, and I can do a better job of it."
Already in the World Golf Hall of Fame, the 42-year-old Els joined even more elite company. He became only the sixth player to win the U.S. Open and British Open twice. The others are Jack Nicklaus, Woods, Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones and Lee Trevino.
Woods came undone on the sixth hole when he tried to blast out of a bunker from a plugged lie, stayed in the bunker, and three-putted for triple bogey. Still with an outside chance after a birdie on the 12th, he stuck with his conservative plan of hitting iron off the tee and made three straight bogeys. He closed with a 73 to tie for third with Brandt Snedeker, who also had his share of problems for a 74.
Woods had his best finish in a major since he lost to Y.E. Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, though he remains winless in his last 17.
"It's part of golf," said Woods, who moves to No. 2 in the world. "We all go through these phases. Some people, it lasts entire careers. Others are a little bit shorter. Even the greatest players to ever play have all gone through little stretches like this."
Els finished at 7-under 273. He failed to qualify for the Masters this year for the first time in nearly two decades, but that won't be a problem now. His win gives him a five-year exemption into the majors.
Even in the closing ceremony, holding that precious claret jug for the second time, his thoughts immediately went to Scott.
"Sorry," he said, looking at the 32-year-old Australian, whose final bogey gave him a 75. "You're a great player, a great friend of mine. I feel very fortunate. You're going to win many of these."
It took Scott a decade just to get into position, and he let it slip away. It was the most shocking collapse at the British Open since Jean Van de Velde took a triple bogey on the final hole at Carnoustie and lost in a playoff. But this was different. It wasn't a last-minute blowup, more of a slow bleed, similar to Jason Dufner losing a five-shot lead to Keegan Bradley in the PGA Championship last year, or Ed Sneed making bogey on the last three holes at the 1979 Masters.
"I know I let a really great chance slip through my fingers today," Scott said.
There was just enough wind to make the 206 bunkers at Royal Lytham look a little bit bigger. And as the gusts increased, a calm week turned chaotic.
It started with Woods on the sixth hole, his first triple bogey at a major championship since he lost his ball on the opening hole at Royal St. George's in 2003.
"One yard," he said to his caddie, a measure of the miss. It plugged near the steep wall of a pot bunker.
Instead of chipping to the middle of the bunker, Woods tried to get out with a ferocious swing. The ball smacked into the wall, nearly hit him and wound up near the left wall. He sat on the grass, his left knee (which has gone through four surgeries) flexed underneath him, his right leg extended as he dipped his upper body toward the sand to make a swing. This one also hit the ball, and caromed around and out to the right. From there, he three-putted for a 7.
"The game plan was to fire it into the bank, have it ricochet to the right and then have an angle to come back at it," Woods said. "Unfortunately, it ricocheted to the left and almost hit me."
Just like that, he was seven shots behind. It was the second time this year that one of golf's biggest stars made triple bogey in the final round of a major while in contention. Phil Mickelson made his on the fourth hole at the Masters and never recovered.
Neither did Woods.
Different from Augusta National, though, there was plenty of backpedaling at Lytham.
Right behind him, McDowell found the same bunker next to the wall - minus the plugged lie - and wisely chipped backward. He made bogey. Scott hit into a bunker on the other side of the green and made bogey. Ahead of them, Snedeker hit a tee shot on the par-5 seventh that was never found and made double bogey, and then compounded that by driving into a deep bunker on the next hole, blasting out and failing to reach the green for another double bogey.
McDowell's hopes ended on the back nine. From the fairway, he topped a 3-wood into the bushes and the ball was never found, and he did well to make bogey with the two-shot penalty.
Els made a bogey on the ninth to fall six shots behind. All that did was fire him up, and he came home in 32. His 68 is best measured in these terms - of the last 12 players who teed off in the final round, no one else had better than a 72.
Yet there was one more collapse, in the final hour, and it was the one everyone will remember from this British Open. It's one Scott will somehow have to forget. As winner and runner-up met in a portable trailer before going out to the trophy presentation, Els told him: "Don't beat yourself up."